HC Deb 02 May 1996 vol 276 cc1299-307 3.31 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

May I ask the Leader of the House for details of future business?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 6 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

TUESDAY 7 MAY—Second Reading of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill [Lords].

Motion on the Contracting Out (Administration of Civil Service Pension Schemes) Order.

WEDNESDAY 8 MAY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [11th allotted day]. Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on the prospects for water supplies this summer, followed by a debate on the fire service. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

THURSDAY 9 MAY—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill.

FRIDAY 10 MAY—Private Members' Bills. The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 13 MAY—Opposition Day [12th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats, of which the subject-understandably—has not yet been announced.

TUESDAY 14 MAY—Opposition Day [13th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, the subject of which also—understandably—has not yet been announced.

Motions relating to the Education (Grants for Nursery Education) (England) Regulations and the Education (Grants for Education Support and Training: Nursery Education) (England) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 15 MAY—Until 2 o'clock. there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Debate on the common agricultural policy and other agricultural issues on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

THURSDAY 16 MAY—Until about 7 o'clock, proceedings on the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill.

FRIDAY 17 MAY—Debate on education and training of 16 to 19-year-olds on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that the following European Standing Committees will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 8 May to consider European Community Documents as follows:

European Standing Committee A: There will be a debate on the welfare of calves.

European Standing Committee B: There will be a debate on consumer credit. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

The House may also wish to know that it is proposed that on Wednesday 15 May there will be a debate on agricultural prices for 1996–97 in European Standing Committee A and a debate on fraud in European Standing Committee B.

[Wednesday 8 May:

European Standing Committee A—European Community Documents 13099/95, Welfare of Calves 4647/96. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 51-xii (1995–96)

European Standing Committee B—European Community Documents: 7774/95 and unnumbered on consumer credit. Relevant European Legislation Reports: HC 70-xxiii (1994–95, HC 70-xxv (1994–95) and HC 51-xi (1995–96)

Wednesday 15 May

European Standing Committee A—European Community Document 5215/96, Agricultural Price Proposals 1996–97. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 5 I-xiv (1995–96)

European Standing Committee B—European Community Document 4512/96, Detection of Fraud and Irregularities. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC5 I-xv (1995–96)

Debate on the common agricultural policy and other agricultural issues on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Relevant documents: Council Document 5215/96 ADD 1, Volume I of 29 February 1996; Council Document 5215/96 ADD 2, Volume II of 7 March 1996; Council Document 5215/96 ADD 3, Volume III of 18 March 1996; Explanatory Memorandum 5215/96 ADD 1 and 2, Volumes I and II of 12 March 1996; Explanatory Memorandum 5215/96 ADD 3, Volume III of 12 March 1996; the Commons Select Committee Report on Explanatory Memoranda 5215/96 ADD 1, 2 and 3, Volumes I, II and III of 27 March 1996.]

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the Leader of the House for once again giving us as much notice as possible of future business. Can he shed light on rumours that the Government intend to clear the decks of Government business by July to minimise the need for a spill-over session in October and so prepare the ground for an autumn election?

As the right hon. Gentleman has been sympathetic when I have previously requested a debate on parliamentary reform, will he assure us that even if such a debate cannot take place in the next couple of weeks, we will be able to debate that important matter before the summer recess? As he is in the process of planning the business leading up to the summer recess, will he say why we still have not had a date for the remaining stages of the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill? Is it because the Government suffered significant defeats in Committee on the rights of disabled people? He knows that there is bound to be a suspicion that the unusual delay in returning the Bill to the House is because Government Ministers are plotting to overturn those amendments, which would mean a great deal to disabled people. It would be help everyone if we knew when the Bill was coming back.

Everyone recalls the tragedy at Dunblane. At that time, there were many calls for changes in the law on the possession of firearms. It was right not to take instant decisions at the height of the grief that everyone felt then, but we understand that the Government have now made a submission on gun control to the Cullen committee of inquiry. Would it not be right for the House to contribute to that debate, in what I hope would be a measured way, before the Government reach any final conclusions on what changes might be appropriate to gun control?

My other point is also specific and important. The Leader of the House announced that the debate on the common agricultural policy on Wednesday 15 May is to be on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I ask him to reconsider that decision. Will he confirm that previous debates on that, the big set-piece agriculture debate of the year, have been on take note motions and therefore amendable? Why is he so adamant that this year's debate should be on the motion for the Adjournment? Of which amendments are the Government more afraid: those that might be tabled by the Opposition or those of their Back Benchers? Or are they afraid of any vote on any issue connected with Europe?

Mr. Newton

Perhaps I might take the last point first. The hon. Lady did not present a full picture of what I proposed in my statement. I proposed both scrutiny in European Standing Committee A, where complex and detailed proposals can be scrutinised extremely effectively—including by the questioning of Ministers—and at the same time I provided for the annual debate, which the House rightly expects, on agricultural matters on the Floor of the House at a time when there are many matters of great interest in agriculture which go well beyond the technicalities of the CAP. My proposals give the House the most effective form of scrutiny in detail and a full opportunity to debate matters of interest. In combination, of course, that is a greater opportunity than would be provided by either proposal on its own.

On the question of Dunblane and guns, the hon. Lady is quite right that the Government have presented, and published, their evidence to Lord Cullen's inquiry. I have no doubt that hon. Members on both sides of the House may wish to submit observations. I will certainly bear in mind the hon. Lady's request for a debate on the subject.

On the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill, there is nothing sinister or devious about the position. My right hon. and hon. Friends obviously wish to consider carefully what happened in Committee and it would be quite wrong were they to do otherwise.

On the question of a debate on parliamentary reform, I have always said that I see some attractions in such a debate. I will continue to bear in mind the requests for a debate, but the hon. Lady will realise that there is a great deal of Government business to be carried through at present.

I agree that there are a lot of rumours about, including the suggestion that the House might rise at a very early date in July. I do not know who is putting those rumours around; I only know that it is not me and I do not wish to give any credence to them.

Finally, and as ever, I express my thanks to the hon. Lady for her thanks at the beginning of her remarks.

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)

Will my right hon. Friend find time soon for a short debate on planning regulations as they relate to the erection of mobile telephone masts? A number of my constituents have written to me to complain about the way in which those masts appear in beautiful parts of Leicestershire without proper scrutiny by local planning committees. This matter is one of increasing public interest and I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could provide time for a short debate.

Mr. Newton

I am aware of concerns that have been expressed in many constituencies, including my own. I will, of course, bring my hon. and learned Friend's remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

May I, too, acknowledge with thanks the announcement by the Leader of the House of the provisional business for the week starting 13 May? It is always useful to have such information. In that context, may I ask him to give special consideration through the usual channels to the date for the minority Opposition day? I have not had a chance to discuss that with colleagues or other minority parties, but the proposed date clashes with the meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee in Dundee, so that might cause some difficulties. I hope that that problem can be discussed through the usual channels.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also give us an assurance that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make sure that he gives regular reports on the important subjects raised today by the Leader of the Opposition with the Prime Minister about the cattle disposal scheme? That must get started, and the sooner the better.

Mr. Newton

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. and learned Friend will continue to make reports to the House as appropriate. I cannot add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about what is going on at this very moment to ensure the implementation of the 30-month cull scheme and to ensure that information about it is widely communicated.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, he well knows that we always listen, even if we cannot always respond as he would like, to representations made through the usual channels. As it happens, there was one change in the business I announced, made in response to some other representation through the usual channels. We will obviously consider the hon. Gentleman's representations.

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)

May we have a debate on the system of justice in this country given the growing evidence that a proportion of High Court judges seem to have lost all touch with reality? During that debate we could refer in particular to Sir Richard Scott's cash-for-treason judgment, under which he awarded £70, 000 to George Blake, who betrayed and therefore condemned to death 42 British agents. Does my right hon. Friend regret that that particular judge cannot be sentenced to two years counselling by the SAS? Failing that—

Madam Speaker

Order. Perhaps I should remind the hon. Gentleman that if he is seeking to criticise any member of the judiciary we have procedures to do that through substantive motions.

Mr. Butcher

Of course I accept your judgment, Madam Speaker. I would convert my comments into a request for such a debate to consider a Bill to allow the House to ban the prospect of treason being rewarded in that way.

Mr. Newton

In the light of your comment, Madam Speaker, I might be wise simply to take delivery of my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made about the reduced earnings allowance? As an ex-Social Security Minister, he will know that in the late 1980s a law was passed which has enabled that reduced earnings allowance to be cut dramatically by about 75 per cent. during the past few weeks. That has affected literally thousands of people who were disabled in the mines and various other organisations throughout Britain. Is he aware that that cut has resulted in severe hardship for many of these people? Will he consider a statement on this matter so that we can look at it afresh?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous attender, was probably present last week when I made some observations on the subject and the background to it. The House settled the law in this area some considerable time ago. I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate next week on cruelty to animals so that the latest RSPCA annual report can be considered? The report reveals that cruelty to horses has increased by 60 per cent. in the past 12 months and that unpleasant cruelty to dogs and to other animals is also increasing. Many hon. Members are concerned about this issue and I would be grateful if we could have an early debate on it.

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise my hon. Friend an early debate on the matter that he has raised. However, he may have noted that in my statement today I announced a debate on the welfare of calves—another point about which the hon. Gentleman is interested—in European Standing Committee A next Wednesday. I remind my hon. Friend that any hon. Member may attend and take part in the debates in those Standing Committees.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

When in Government time will we have a debate on the pathetic state of the electoral registers in this country? Clearly, we have to act as there will be a general election at some time in the future. There are 3 million to 4 million people missing off the electoral registers, including young, poor and black people. This issue should be of great concern to any hon. Member who depends on the people themselves.

Mr. Newton

As the hon. Gentleman implied, this is a matter that he has raised on a number of occasions. I can think of nothing to say on this occasion that I have not said before.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for calling the debate on education and training for young people aged between 16 and 19. It would have been more appropriate for this subject to be debated on an Opposition day because we are all aware of the intention of the Labour party to withdraw child benefit to the tune of £560 from every young person in that age range who is in education and training. That Labour party proposal will particularly hit young people from unskilled homes. Under the Labour Government, less than one fifth of those young people stayed on in education; under the Conservative Government, half of them stay on in education.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend is right to remind hon. Members—and the country—of the policy of the Labour party in this regard. It seemed inconceivable that the Opposition would seek to debate this important subject, so I thought that it was appropriate to do so on a Government day.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

May I associate myself with the request of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) for a debate on animal welfare. Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday 1, 500 people from Compassion in World Farming were at central hall? There was considerable anger about the proposed treatment of cows as a result of BSE and the culling of large numbers of animals, including working cows, calves and even healthy beasts. This is appalling and it is being done in the name of restoring public confidence. There is not much public confidence in the Government at the moment, but surely no one would suggest that we should cull Ministers.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman's remarks are a bit over the top. The underlying objective of these policies is to preserve the livelihoods of almost 650, 000 people who work in and around the industry. He should not dismiss that aim in the way that his remarks imply. Nevertheless, I respect the hon. Gentleman's concern for animal welfare and I draw his attention to the debate on the welfare of calves in European Standing Committee A next week. He can take part in those discussions if he wishes.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

Given the accelerating trend among Labour and Liberal-controlled local education authorities to deny young students of dance and drama access to discretionary awards, can my right hon. Friend assure me that the terms of the debate on education and training will enable right hon. and hon. Members to refer to that important subject and enable the Government to make constructive proposals to tackle the problem? It would certainly reassure the parents whom I shall meet tomorrow night at a leading Worcestershire dance school, who face agonising choices about their young children's future.

Mr. Newton

I am sorry to hear of the circumstances in Worcester. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the subjects, and I think that would certainly be within the scope of the debate that I have announced because it is on a motion for the Adjournment. That illustrates the advantages of debates on the Adjournment, to provide for wide-ranging debate.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House make time available in the very near future for an urgent debate on the treatment of asylum seekers in this country? That would allow the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), to explain at the Dispatch Box why she leaked to the newspapers last night the information that Adae Onibiyo, a young Nigerian, is due to be deported tomorrow and that she has refused to meet any Member of Parliament between now and tomorrow to discuss his safety or any removal arrangements. It would also allow her to explain the basic inhumanity of holding in custody for more than a year a young man, aged 20, who has committed no crime in this country, and who has been denied education, freedom and access to his family because of that abominable treatment by the British Government.

Mr. Newton

I would want to make sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, although without for a minute accepting the flavour of his observations directed at her. It is well within the hon. Gentleman's knowledge that asylum matters generally are under consideration in another place at present, and that will in due course no doubt lead to further debate here.

Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds)

I welcome the announcement by my right hon. Friend of the debate on the common agricultural policy being expanded to agricultural matters in general. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that could include discussion, not only on BSE, but on the great prosperity currently enjoyed by the farmers of East Anglia?

Mr. Newton

The answer to that is yes. It again illustrates the advantages of providing for a debate on the Adjournment, which would enable all those issues to be embraced.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 768?

[That this House is alarmed by the growth of trafficking in Khat, a drug illegal in America, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Ireland amongst others; recognises that the discrepancy in British law with that of other countries has led to the conviction and imprisonment of British subjects abroad for importation and possession of Khat; is concerned about the health problems associated with Khat, notably paranoid psychosis and hypomania and about the increasing social problems caused by this substance in some communities; and therefore calls upon Her Majesty's Government to make Khat a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.]

I remind the Leader of the House that khat is legal in this country but illegal elsewhere in the world, and that a constituent of mine has now been imprisoned in Ireland as a result of carrying it. Several social and health problems are associated with it. Will he ask the appropriate Minister in the Home Office to make a statement at the Dispatch Box about the control of drugs or about the possibility of a debate on the misuse of drugs?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady is probably aware that the background is that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which I believe is widely respected, advised in 1988 that in the United Kingdom there was insufficient evidence of misuse to justify bringing that plant under the controls of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We do, however, continue to monitor the position, and I will ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has his attention drawn to the concerns that the hon. Lady expressed.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

When will we have the annual summer economic debate? Many of us would like to point out that unemployment in Britain is well below that in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, that industrial relations have been transformed since 1979 and that privatisation has been good for the consumer and the taxpayer, who now receives £50 million a week from those industries whereas, in 1979, he had to pay £50 million towards their losses.

Mr. Newton

In view of the quality of my hon. Friend's rhetoric, I am tempted to change the business and announce such a debate for next week. I cannot quite go that far, but I will try to satisfy the hon. Gentleman and, I hope, also to please the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), by making a reasonably early announcement of when I expect the summer economic debate to be

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

May I point out the tragic suicide of a young constituent of mine, Angela Bollan, aged 19, in Cornton Vale women's prison in Stirling last Friday, in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Scotland? I point out to the Leader of the House that that is the fourth suicide of young women in that prison in the past 10 months, so this is a very serious situation. I sat with the family of young Angela in their home last Friday, and they asked me to make urgent inquiries into the position in Cornton Vale. Will the Leader of the House pass on my comments to the Secretary of State for Scotland? May we have a statement in the House on the situation in prisons and any future policies designed to avoid such tragic consequences?

Mr. Newton

The House will understand and respect the hon. Gentleman's reasons for raising the matter in the way that he has. In a similar spirit, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland sees what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

My right hon. Friend may have noticed that, following an agreement through the usual channels on Tuesday night, the homeless clauses of the Housing Bill were galloped through with hardly any Back-Bench contributions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue of homelessness is complex and raises a number of questions that go beyond the sensible reforms in the Bill? They include the rough sleepers initiative, which is being extended from London to the provinces. May we have a debate on that complex, but important subject?

Mr. Newton

One of my predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Biffen), once observed that many of the questions asked during business questions were speeches that had been frustrated during the week. We have just heard a classic case and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) on releasing his frustration in that way.

Mr. Corbyn

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will have heard the answer that the Leader of the House gave to my request for a debate next week on the safety of asylum seekers. You will also have heard me tell the House that the Minister had refused to meet me or any other hon. Member to discuss the safety of Ade Onibiyo. Are there any means by which the Minister of State or any other Minister from the Home Office can be brought to the House to explain their continuing behaviour—they essentially show contempt for hon. Members who legitimately try to raise issues of concern about people who are wrongly held in custody and wrongly deported from this country, often to places of danger?

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may wish to raise that matter with his Front-Bench team and through the usual channels. On the general issue, there is a convention that hon. Members have the right to make representations to Ministers; I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about that and I expect that right to be recognised. Equally, Ministers are required to take decisions and it is for them to determine how to respond to hon. Members' representations. If a Minister took the view that he was prepared to take account only of representations that contained new material or new arguments, I could well understand that attitude. I make that point because I know that the hon. Gentleman is deeply concerned about such matters.